Carte blanche

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 50

Carte blanche

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 50

Carte blanche

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 50

Carte blanche

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 50

Carte blanche

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 47, Summer 2016

Page 50

San Franciscan interior designer John Dickinson had a fetish for mock-primitive designs, whiter shades of pale – and acquiescent clients. Emma O'Kelly is in awe

In 1968, eminent American hand surgeon Leo Keoshian and his wife, Marlys, commissioned John Dickinson to create an interior for their Californian-Mediterranean style house in Palo Alto. Fortunately, the Keoshians had a passion for design, deep pockets – and abundant faith: "There was absolutely no compromise," Leo remembers. "John was very well known by then, and expensive. The house cost $62,000 and the stainless steel bathtub was $16,500 – the same price as a new Ferrari."

Bit by bit, Dickinson did the entire house for the Keoshians, from window frames to door handles to lamps and carpets, designed in three colors and block patterns to accommodate the placement of the furniture.

Dickinson was extremely careful in choosing his clients. They had to be wealthy and give him absolute carte blanche. Born in Berkeley, he trained at Parsons School of Design in New York before returning to California in 1956 to establish his design practice.

Before long, he was making furniture for department stores such as Lord & Taylor, Randolph & Hein and Macy's, and fitting out homes for a young elite who wanted something more daring than the Napoleonic grandeur of their parents' generation.

He was also instrumental in founding a West Coast approach that endures to this day: "San Franciscan designers beat their own drum," says David Alhadeff, director of contemporary New York gallery Future Found. "They don't look to fit into other people's schedules." Alhadeff is referring in particular to a new wave of woodworkers, sculptors and ceramicists like Roy McMakin, Ron Nagle and David Wiseman, who have a modus operandi that is wholly West Coast.

Dickinson was noted for his refusal to scrimp on the comfort of his clientele (a Dickinson interior is sumptuous, a tad flouncy even), but he also drew on the traditional and mixed it with his own quirky, avant-garde conceits. He made tables, chairs, desks and consoles out of unexpected materials such as unpolished brass, rough wood, galvanized metal, fake bamboo and plaster of Paris. Pieces such as Rope Table (1980), a plaster table tied with a plaster rope and Galvanized Metal Table (1972), which features a 'skirt' made of tin with a brass 'hem', are classic Dickinson collectibles, and his anthropomorphic and tribal details such as tiger-paw feet, legs echoing human femurs and bark-like carvings are instantly recognizable.

"The Regency or Egyptian influence was not in my mind when I first designed white plaster chairs and tables with animal feet," Dickinson said in an interview in 1980. "I was after something mock-primitive and quite surprising. The fetishy thing is quite marvelous and hadn't been explored at all. Designers usually take something primitive and refine it way beyond recognition. That way you usually end up with something banal. If you go the other way, as I did, you usually end up with something very peculiar looking but quite successful."

Heavily influenced by 1930s French masters Serge Roche and Jean-Michel Frank, white, beige and gray were his colors of choice; bright hues a mere distraction. He once said: "People think I never use color. It's not true. Their eye just isn't trained and they don't notice subtlety. Subdued colors are still colors. But really, the reason I can't use strong color with conviction is that it draws attention away from all the things I do best, which involve line, proportion and shape."

And he was certainly a man of conviction: "When he conceived a room, it was an all-encompassing concept," Leo Keoshian recalls. "From the outset, everything was there, drawn out by hand, and he was a great artist."

His intensely private nature – he always operated as a one-man band – earned Dickinson a reputation as an outsider, boosting his cult status among fellow designers like Andrée Putman, David Hicks and Mark Hampton. Alhadeff, who owns some Dickinson African stools and a rope table, says, "He was part of the Californian movement of the 1960s and 1970s but wasn't defined by this period. He has such a strong signature style – he operated outside any era."

Dickinson worked alone in his home studio, a Victorian firehouse in San Francisco, which he converted in 1967. It was hailed as the finest example of his work and included many of his signature features, such as brass nameplates, a white canvas-curtained portière and a steel fireplace. Marlys Keoshian visited several times: "It was wonderful. He kept the original fireman's pole and had a clothes closet with carved wooden doors that resembled a Victorian streetscape. Every single area was perfect for entertaining. And John knew how to party. He was a huge socialite, the darling of the design world."

The house, with its massive doors, fretwork, stylish pediments, notable tower and Mark I Jaguar, with its customized canework and chrome dove mascot, parked in the drive, led to magazine articles and attracted a series of high-profile owners after Dickinson's death in 1982.

Today, his place at the forefront of 20th century interior design is assured, but for many contemporaries the witty plays on classical motifs and surrealist touches were simply too avant-garde. In 1977, he created a 25-piece collection for Macy's featuring white lacquered 'skyscraper' bookcases, Roman-column nightstands that swiveled to reveal shelving, and 'human bone' furniture. It bombed. Now, of course, it is a different story. Instead of adorning elegant Californian living rooms, the works are in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, along with 275 of his other works.

In 2003, the museum held a Dickinson retrospective, organized by Darrin Alfred. "Not long after the show, attention around John's work rose, as did prices," Alfred explains. "I believe they continue to rise. His works come to auction from time to time, but not nearly as often as they did back then."

In October, pieces from the Keoshians' house are offered at Bonhams in LA. The immaculately preserved interior looks as fresh now as it did in 1968: if they were not downsizing, the couple would not be parting with their precious Dickinson interiors. "Most people feel the need to remodel after ten years," says Marlys. "We never felt the need to change anything. Not once. Which is testament to the timelessness of John's design."

Emma O'Kelly is Editor-at-Large at Wallpaper magazine.

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